Those racist Hunger Games tweets; character descriptions

by look i have opinions

When I first read this and this, I felt weirdly grateful for my upbringing. I’m white. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was raised right, but at least I don’t get outraged and whiny when a character I like turns out to be black. Now that I’ve thought about it more, I hope it’s not just that I have a better filter.

These assumptions (not explicitly nonwhite = white; good/innocent = white) get hammered into us in subtle ways. In the books I read as a kid, nonwhite characters were carefully pointed out as such; in retrospect, that was probably supposed to prevent just this kind of reaction. I also remember watching cartoon shows where one cast member could be black or Asian, but no more than one each, and if there was a central protagonist, he (or she—but only on a girls’ show) was white. Even now, the thought of violating that unwritten rule without somehow justifying it makes me vaguely uneasy, as though it were an act of exhibitionism or self-congratulation. It’s sad that some white (?) readers still need to have nonwhiteness pointed out and justified.

Related: Do people even read physical descriptions of characters in fiction? I don’t. I mean, I sort of read them, but it’s like describing the weather. If it doesn’t affect something I happen to be interested in, I instantly forget it and go on picturing the characters as not-quite-bodyless beings in a weatherless world.

At least, I instantly forget the descriptions that occur when a character is first introduced. Those descriptions tend to be static; they usually have a light, throwaway quality. When my mental image of the character matches the description, it’s usually because the description gets repeated later on, or because the character’s physical traits are revealed through action, like Psmith peering through his monocle.